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Images of Subject Mongols Under the Ming Dynasty

From: Late Imperial China
Volume 25, Number 1, June 2004
pp. 59-123 | 10.1353/late.2004.0010

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Late Imperial China 25.1 (2004) 59-123

David M. Robinson

As Henri Serruys demonstrated decades ago, from 1368 to 1449 tens of thousands of Mongols joined the fledgling Ming dynasty. Although the number of Mongols relocating to China declined markedly from the mid-fifteenth century onward, more than 150 years after the last of the major Mongol emigrations to China, these Mongols (daguan dajun as they were often termed) appear in a wide variety of Ming documents. Why?

For students of the steppe, particularly Mongolists, Mongols in Ming China form an important part of post-imperial history. A clearer understanding of their fate will make possible a more integrative study of Mongolian personnel in sedentary empires elsewhere in Eurasia during the early modern period. For those interested in the transition between the Yuan and the Ming dynasties, Ming Mongols offer a point of departure in our efforts to understand continuity, change, and synthesis between the Mongols' vast, complex polity and the last native dynasty in Chinese history. For military historians, the Ming Mongols offer insight into the use of foreign military personnel within China.

Although all these issues deserve further exploration, this preliminary study examines the relation between Chinese administrative systems and images of subject Mongols. The studies of Pamela Crossley, Mark Elliott, Joanna Waley-Cohen, Evelyn Rawski, and others have contributed to a sophisticated appreciation of the wide variety of factors at work in the construction and maintenance of Manchu identity during the Qing dynasty (1636-1911). Important too has been work related to questions of the identification and classification of various subjugated groups in the context of Qing empire and colonialism.

Less studied have been perceptions and descriptions of non-Chinese groups within the Ming empire (1368-1644). This situation is as understandable as it is regrettable. Qing historians today have at their disposal a far more voluminous and detailed documentary and pictorial record. Not only have many more materials survived from the Qing than from the Ming, but the former was a self-consciously expansionistic and colonialist power. The Qing government was keenly interested in categorizing and describing its newly acquired lands and peoples. Perhaps most fundamentally, as a foreign conquest dynasty, the Qing was intensely occupied with the question of identity throughout the life of the dynasty.

The question of subject populations, their place in administrative apparati, their relations with other groups within China and beyond, and finally the images generated through these various interaction are, however, critical for understanding the Ming dynasty. The Ming, like nearly all regimes that controlled the Central Plains, was a multi-ethnic empire that incorporated Chinese, Korean, Mongolian, Jurchen, Khitan, Parhae, Vietnamese, Zhuang, Li, and a wide variety of other peoples. Studies of various groups in the southwest corner of the Ming have examined the interplay between Chinese imperial administrative structures and indigenous groups. These works demonstrate that the creation of discrete ethnic or tribal names and identities was often tied to the bureaucratic imperatives of the Ming state. Frederick Wakeman's classic description of the transfrontiermen of the northeastern corner of the Chinese empire during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries sheds light on the fluid nature of ethnic identification and shifting relations with the Ming state.

The present essay adds to our understanding of subject populations through an examination of perceptions of Mongol personnel in the Capital Region during the Ming dynasty. In particular, I focus on how these images were developed and how they were transmitted within China. As demonstrated below, perceptions of Mongolian communities in the Capital Region varied widely according to time, place, and context. Their meaning was never self-evident.

My central argument is that administrative concerns of the Ming state often powerfully shaped images of Ming Mongols. The state was generally more interested in how Mongols fit into pre-existing bureaucratic operations such as household registration categories, tax and labor service obligations, and jurisdictional responsibilities between military and civil authorities than in what we more commonly consider ethnic features like language, clothing, lifeways, or notions of descent. A second and related element of my argument is that Ming Mongols became inseparably linked to imperial military institutions. This was not only because...

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